Filipinos have lived with US troops for over a hundred years. These troops replaced Spanish officers and soldiers in the aftermath of the failed 1986 Revolution, the last stages of which the United States pretended to support.
The US war for the annexation of the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century meant the arrival and basing of more and more US troops in the country to “pacify” it. These soldiers were so successful in their task that by the time the US had control over the entire country, somewhere between 750,000 to a million Filipinos, mostly civilians, were dead.
The Second World War temporarily drove US troops out, but they returned in 1945 to “their” military bases here. Upon the “grant” of Philippine independence in 1946, the US retained control and sovereignty over some two dozen military bases including rest and recreation facilities.
Between 1946 and 1990, hundreds of incidents involving US servicemen and Filipinos were recorded, among them the shooting of the latter at the periphery of the US bases as well as rape and other common crimes. When the likelihood of conviction was strong, which was often, US military authorities spirited US servicemen accused of violating Philippine laws out of the country and beyond prosecution.
These were among the “irritants” that eventually led Philippine senators to refuse to sign a new treaty in 1991 that would have extended the life of the US bases in the Philippines.
The departure of US troops mostly based in Clark Air Base and Subic Naval Base was accomplished with little economic loss to the bases-dependent towns of Angeles and Olongapo. It also reduced the social problems these and outlying towns had had to live with for nearly fifty years, among them illegitimate births, venereal disease including AIDS, and the steady growth in the number of prostituted women.
Despite the supposed economic advantages the presence of US troops provided, the bases were at odds with the country’s interests. Clark and Subic, once the hub of the US Pacific basing system, were US enclaves in which the US could do anything without host country consent, and were also launch pads for intervention.
The US bases in the Philippines played a crucial role in the Vietnam War, in effect involving the country in a war opposed by large sectors of the populace. In EDSA 1, fear of US military might assembled in the bases kept Marcos from attacking. US Phantom jets also flew over Manila in 1989 to show rebel troops where US sympathies lay.
The respite from US troop presence was short-lived, however. In 1998 the United States and the Philippines signed the Visiting Forces Agreement. In 2002, the US “war on terrorism,” and the alleged links of the kidnap-for- ransom group Abu Sayyaf with the Al-Qaeda network, became the excuses to allow US troops into the country to “advise” Philippine troops in the latter’s anti-terrorism campaign.
The Philippine Constitution bans foreign troops without a treaty. It is the VFA–an agreement, not a treaty–that has allowed US troops into the country to engage in joint military exercises with Philippine troops and to “advise” them.
The legal bases for the return of US troops into the country–and they have been here since 2002, participating in one exercise after another–could be endlessly debated. But it was the Arroyo government that allowed them back in, and it is the same government that will decide whether they should remain.
Like most Philippine governments, almost all of them distinguished by their readiness to serve US interests, the Arroyo regime has been creative in finding legal and other justifications for doing what it wants. In this case, and as any casual reading of Palace statements recently will show, what it wants is for US troops to remain in this country.
Only outrage on a scale it believes could add to its present instability can deter the regime from this path. This path is determined by its current perception that it needs US support to survive the present crisis, just as Mrs. Arroyo needed it for the 2004 elections.
To prevent the November 1 Subic Free Port gang-rape of a 22- year- old Filipina by, allegedly, six (or five) US Marines, from further eroding her already negative approval ratings, Mrs. Arroyo will have to show that the VFA will not allow foreign troops to get away with such crimes, if the evidence shows that the Marines are guilty.
Although the VFA gives Philippine authorities jurisdiction over US troops who violate Philippine laws, US military authorities only have to request that it waive this jurisdiction for the Philippines to do so (Article II, subparagraph d of paragraph 3 of the Agreement). In addition, the US commander can certify that the alleged offense was committed while the Marines were on duty to put them under US jurisdiction.
If the evidence is strong for conviction–and Subic Free Port and other lawyers are saying that it is–the US is likely to make the request, or to certify that the Marines were on duty even while they were brutalizing their victim. As a matter of US policy, no US government personnel can be tried or imprisoned in another country without US government consent.
Still on the assumption that the evidence is strong, the US policy to protect its personnel (what are we a superpower for?) will conflict with the Arroyo regime’s interests. This will force it to look for some means that will allow the Marines to go scot-free without damaging its already sub-zero credibility. Among those means could be suppressing the evidence by paying off or intimidating witnesses, and convincing the rape survivor and her family to withdraw the rape complaint.
As for the legal loopholes, Raul Gonzalez of the so-called Department of Justice nearly let the cat out of the bag by making noises about the Philippines’ being prevented by the VFA from keeping the suspects in the country. But legalist contortions should be the regime’s last resort, since no one is likely to believe it.
Expect witnesses to recant or disappear in the next few weeks or so as the regime frantically maneuvers to get out of this latest mini-crisis while assuring the US that none of its democracy-loving, liberty-defending, anti-terrorist, crusader homeboys will ever see a day in a Philippine jail. Those Filipinos who know their history have a name for this. It’s called reliving the past. It’s also known as betrayal.